Part 3 - Net Zero: How are engineering and technology entrepreneurs helping?

08 Nov 2021

The Conference of the Parties 26 summit (31 October to 12 November 2021) will be uniting nations together to join forces in a bid to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UK is committed to collaborating with civil society, companies and people on the frontline of climate change to accelerate the UK's collective climate action.

With UK investment into clean technologies on the rise, we are delighted to see the commitment and faith in engineering and technology entrepreneurs and their role in achieving Net Zero. At the Enterprise Hub, we are proud to be supporting some of the UK's brightest engineering entrepreneurs with their clean technology innovations - in this blog series, we explore a few of the Hub Members joining the UK's climate action journey to Net Zero.

Agnes CzakoFor our final instalment, we hear from Hub Member Agnes Czako, co-founder and managing director of AirEx, a clean tech startup looking to help household’s save money on their energy bills with their retrofit smart ventilation control innovation. Agnes has an impressive resume – she was the 2019 winner of Innovate UK’s “Women in Innovation” Award, holds a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment from the University of Cambridge, and recently featured as a panellist at COP26 for the ‘Innovation at the forefront of climate action’ discussion organised by Springwise. AirEx was also named ‘Building Technology of the Year’ in 2018 and ‘Clean Tech Startup of the Year’ in 2017 by Business Green. Learn what AirEx are doing to accelerate the UK’s collective climate action.

The Conference of the Parties 26 (COP26) aims to unite the world to tackle climate change, how is your innovation helping to tackle climate change? What impact will it deliver short, medium, long term? 

We are a London-based construction tech company with the mission to tackle fuel poverty and climate change through a cost effective, smart home solution. We are designing and manufacturing a novel, patented smart air brick technology, Airex, that helps householders reduce their energy bills whilst managing air quality. The system monitors the environmental conditions which is layered with online weather data and its cloud-based algorithms automatically regulate airflow – it reduces the building’s heat demand by cutting out uncontrolled draughts, while mitigating moisture risk.

Buildings’ space heating is responsible for 36% of CO2 emissions across the EU, poorly insulated, leaky, energy inefficient buildings require more energy to heat, which results in higher operational carbon emissions. Recent research demonstrated that air bricks (air ventilation holes that provide natural airflow) are responsible for up to 15% of the home’s heat loss  - this is equivalent with 34,000 GWh/year energy waste in the UK alone! Airex can mitigate this unnecessary waste through smartly controlling airflow.

Up to date, we have commercially sold and deployed 2,500 units (helped over 500 families living in fuel poverty), which resulted in 2,460 tonnes of lifetime CO2 emissions reduction. During the next few years we will be focusing on scaling up our processes - through our installer networks both in the UK and beyond – with the aim of deploying Airex across hundreds of thousands of homes. At full European market penetration (53 million homes) Airex has the potential to save 370 million tonnes of carbon emission throughout the lifetime of the product.

Engineering and technology startups and SMEs are considered the backbone of the UK economy, as well essential to solving the world’s most pressing challenges. What was the moment that made you think “I can turn this into a commercial opportunity for society’s benefit”?

While I am not an engineer myself (we have fantastic engineers and designers in our team), my technical background is in building physics and passivhaus design. Prior to co-founding Airex, have been an energy consultant and I also led the delivery of tens of thousands of fuel poverty assessments across vulnerable communities. This was a truly shocking real-world experience to recognise that fuel poverty (i.e. a state where a household cannot afford to pay their energy bills) still exists in the 21st century in one of the world’s most developed cities: London. This frustration triggered the desire to do something about it, alongside a joint research project we conducted with a well-regarded academic researcher, Dr Sofie Pelsmakers, who pointed out just how much heat loss is attributed to such an overlooked area within buildings. We were fortunate enough to secure a small R&D grant funding, through Innovate UK’s “Energy Game Changer” programme in 2016, which allowed us the build the first prototypes and test the hypothesis. When we realised the energy savings impact from these real-world trials were so significant, we decided to turn this project into a commercial opportunity - and we never looked back since.

What are the best parts about working in the climate tech sector? What are the challenges for startups working in the climate tech sector?

For us the best part is the ‘profit with purpose’ ethos – the realisation that the carbon emission reduction impact is directly proportional to the number of units sold commercially. This, coupled with a social impact we can have on people’s lives, is something worth putting a lot of efforts into, despite all the challenges of an early-stage business.

The challenging part is that it can sometimes be incredibly difficult to create a mindset shift in industries that tend to be old fashioned, risk averse  - construction is a classic example of ‘dinosaur industry’ where people can be reluctant to adopt innovation, and still not recognising the long-term benefits and necessity to prioritise sustainability. It has certainly improved recently, but so much more efforts needs to be done to ‘normalise’ sustainability and it will also require governments to help removing the regulatory barriers to enable innovation to scale.

The world is aiming to hit #NetZero by 2050. How different do you think the world will be by then and how do you see your product(s) evolving over time to ensure it remains relevant?

It is encouraging to see that every additional home installed with our products will gets us a little bit closer to NetZero. We are aware that Airex is only part of the solution, but it can play an important role in reaching #NetZero, by being a low risk solution that has an immediate impact and pays back fast. I would like to think that by 2050 the UK’s energy mix will be sufficiently renewable-heavy, that being said, the energy efficiency of buildings is always going to remain crucial, as the cheapest, cleanest energy is the one we don’t use.

Our team will be focusing on how we can implement the core principle of our products in other parts of the home to treat other sources of heat loss. Parallel to this we will be also looking at becoming more circular – while the embodies and embedded carbon emission of producing Airex is negligible compared to the operational carbon it can save, but it is important that we minimise this impact as much as possible.

If you had unlimited resources and time, what do you hope to have achieved by 2050?

We would very much hope to make significant contribution in the decarbonisation of existing homes, in the UK and beyond. It is an enormous task, given that the UK has Europe’s oldest housing stock, and it will certainly require collaboration from industry players, and the implementation of various technologies and materials. There is no “silver bullet” that alone solves this challenge, the success will depend on the right mix of solutions that are implemented at the right time. Let’s hope that COP26 will result in tangible outcomes and actions that can pave the way for this much needed transition in the sector. 

To follow AirEx's progress, you can visit their website or follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn. Agnes Czako is an alumnus from our Shott Scale Up Accelerator programme - learn more about the programme and how to apply here.

The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.

We run three programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.

The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.

Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.

The Enterprise Hub was formally launched in April 2013. Since then, we have supported over 220 researchers, recent graduates and SME leaders to start up and scale up businesses that can give practical application to their inventions. We’ve awarded over £8 million in grant funding, and our Hub Members have gone on to raise over £380 million in additional funding.


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